“Staycation” 2020

We had this grand plan in mind for our vacation this year. Reservations were made, days were claimed to be taken off, and tents were being bought in preparation for the journey. The plan was that we would drive out to Yellowstone National Park and camp at one of their campgrounds, then stay at an Airbnb closer to Grand Teton National Park for another few days, then circle down through Colorado and see Brooke’s cousin.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

The kids and I still needed to get out of the house though, and Brooke has an innate need to go on a road trip every year, so we decided to knock a few more state parks off our list and head out to Pilot Knob, MO, where we could stay in a motel (with a swimming pool), and hit up 3 state parks while we were in one central area. Pilot Knob is pretty close to Elephant Rocks State Park, Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, so we’d be able to spend part of the day at each one while we went for an extended weekend. We actually drove through Onandoga Cave State Park, but because they weren’t doing cave tours, we figured we should just go back there when all of this is finally over…

So yeah, because we’ve got a whole other thread of posts for state park visits, I’m going to make separate posts about those. Here, I’m going to speak more broadly about the trip.

Pilot Knob is about 4.5 hrs from Marshall, and luckily for us, St. James, MO is on the way, so we stopped off at our favorite winery in the state, Heinrichshaus, to pick up some bottles. While we were there, we had a picnic lunch and enjoyed being out of the car for a bit. It was a pretty short stop, but it had been a few years since we were last there (Meg and I stopped in last Spring on the return trip from an excursion with my Biology students,, but we didn’t exactly “stock up”).

That afternoon, we stopped off at the Huzzah Conservation Area to play in the water for a bit. Really, it was just an excuse for Brooke and I to relax with our feet in the water and let the kids mess around in a fast-moving float trip river.

We only stayed for an hour or so, but the kids could have done that all afternoon. They’d float their bodies while their hands kinda shuffled them along with the current, and then they’d do it again, and again, and again. It was like sledding.

There weren’t many options for where to stay in Pilot Knob or Ironton (which is practically attached…), and we weren’t thrilled with the prospect of camping in late-July humidity, so Brooke booked us a room at the Fort Davidson Hotel. It has an attached restaurant with a nice patio, it had exterior access to the room, and it had an outdoor pool, so we figured it was a relatively safe bet. The place turned out to be pretty nice, all things considered! We had an issue with the toilet constantly running, but the owner of the hotel came right over and took care of it for us. That night, I went out to Casey’s to get pizza, so the kids were more than satisfied.

The next morning, we went to Elephant Rocks (more on that in another post), and thankfully, it wasn’t all that crowded. More folks kept showing up and, as we were being responsible human beings, we tried avoiding others to the best of our ability, so it was good that we went relatively early so we could leave before the crowds got really bad.

That afternoon was mostly spent out by the pool! The kids were pretty proud of themselves swimming in the 11 ft deep end of the pool for much of the time. Meg was able to get diving sticks from the very bottom, though it took her some practice to get there. Calvin touched the bottom a few times, but again, he hadn’t really done that before, so diving from the surface was tough!

That night, we ate at the attached restaurant. We had the option of eating inside or outside, but the patio was nice enough and the weather wasn’t too bad, so we were comfortable. The kids got some Fitz’s soft drinks and their beer selection was surprisingly decent, considering how far Pilot Knob is from….er….anywhere… And my fried catfish was spectacular.

Across the street from the restaurant sits the namesake of the hotel: Fort Davidson. It was my first “earthen fort” that I’d ever visited, so there wasn’t really all that much to see aside from a hill with grass on it in the shape of a square. Apparently, the Union were holding the fort and then lost a battle with the Confederacy, who then subsequently took over.

So yeah, it was a nice evening stroll after eating way too much. An excuse to walk around a bit like normal people for a change. 🙂

The next morning, we went to Taum Sauk Mountain, and that afternoon, we went to Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Again, I’ll have separate posts about those, but here, I’ll point out that Taum Sauk was a nice little hike where we got to sit and enjoy some small waterfalls, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins was a madhouse. We figured on a Sunday afternoon, the “St. Louis Crowd” would have waned a bit as they were all heading back home, but nope…totally wrong on that one… We had to park almost a mile away from the main area of the park, and it was very difficult to maintain any form of social distancing, let alone 6 ft. We only stayed for an hour or so, and while the kids would have liked to have stayed a little more (and seen more of the park), we just didn’t feel comfortable.

So we went back to the hotel and swam there again! 🙂

That evening, we went to a Mexican restaurant in Ironton called Checo’s that was pretty good. Not a lot of good mask-wearing in that building either, but we were seated relatively far from anyone else, so we felt at least okay about it.

In the evenings, we played some games that we brought alone. The first night, we played Skip-Bo, which is a family favorite. The second night, we played a family edition of Trivial Pursuit that actually worked shockingly well. The kids get their own set of cards separate from the adult-level cards, and we think they did a good job of getting that mix right.

Monday morning, we decided to hit up Meremec Caverns on our return trip home, as Onandoga Cave was closed and we had played up how cool caves can be (literally and figuratively).

The kids definitely enjoyed it! I’m not sure I’ve ever been there, though I’ve been to others in the state like Mark Twain Cave, Bridal Cave, and Jacob’s Cave. Like those, this one is definitely a tourist trap, but again, it provided a bit of “spectacle” for the kids to experience. Hopefully they’ll remember it!

We were wearing masks, but very few others in our tour group was. Our tour guide did, but most of the folks with us weren’t doing their part. When we passed other tour groups, it looked like there were others there wearing them, but the majority of the visitors didn’t have them on. Definitely disconcerting.

Again, I think the kids enjoyed it quite a bit, and they did a great job of following directions and listening to the tour guide as he pointed out various aspects of the cave. They also very much enjoyed when they turned all the lights out, just how dark it gets in there. Of course, as we were vacationing in southern Missouri in late-July, we didn’t have jackets with us…..so next time, we should try to remember to bring long sleeves. Calving got a little chilly after being in there for an hour, but overall, they did a good job!

After we finished at Meremec Caverns, we continued home via Highway 50! Mostly, it’s because that was a different route than we took to get home (it also rained quite a bit on our return trip, so that was lovely…..), but the real reason was that we would pass through Jefferson City a little after lunch time:

For the record, Brooke did not eat that entire banana split. Meg did eat the mint chocolate chip sundae in its entirety, though. And she didn’t throw up, for the record.

That’s it! We had a ton of laundry to do after this, but for an extended weekend trip, it was “good enough” to tide us over until next year. We’ll have to double back and get to Yellowstone eventually, but assuming things get better in time, next year’s plan is a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway ending at Disneyland!

Biloxi Vacation

Getting our feet wet...
Getting our feet wet…

Brooke wanted to go on a little vacation this year, but wanted to go a bit early in the summer to avoid being far away from home when she’s closer to her due date.  She was also thinking this would be a good time to take Meg to “see the ocean” and experience a beach, as we likely won’t be going very far next year with a newborn.

Thus, she looked into a few options and we decided to head down toward Biloxi, MS, a place neither of us had been to before, but close to the ocean (or “gulf,” technically).  This was a relatively short trip, as we spent two days driving, and two full days actually at our destination.

We got up last week on Wednesday morning relatively early, leaving just after 6:00 am.  We expected a 9+ hr drive, based on Google Maps, most of which would be a straight shot down I-55 towards New Orleans, cutting off on US-49 at Jackson, MS.  Unfortunately, Google didn’t understand that US-49 is filled with small towns and stoplights, so our 9+ hr trip became an 11 hr trip…grrrr…  Meg stayed entertained for most of the trip, with an assortment of books, stickers, and movies, and thankfully was able to sleep for a few hours that afternoon.  In total, the trip down really wasn’t all that bad, despite the traffic lights.

Technically, we stayed in Ocean Springs, which sits northeast of Biloxi.  Our hotel was maybe 10-15 min from the nearest public beach, so we checked it out Wednesday night.  After a long day in the car, though, we grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant and headed back to the hotel to go to sleep (even I was asleep by 9:30…).

Fillin' my bucket...
Fillin’ my bucket…

The next day, we drove to Gulfport, where we boarded a ferry to Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  After an hour (and a brief dolphin sighting), we crossed the island to the Gulf of Mexico side, where Meg played in the sand for 4 hours.  The high was in the low 80s that day and, while it was quite comfortable out on the beach in a swimsuit, it wasn’t quite warm enough to get into the water.  Then again, as Meg can’t swim yet, we probably wouldn’t have been out there much, anyway.  Still, she had a good time dipping her toes in and letting the waves chase her.

There was also a Civil War-era structure, Fort Massachusetts, to see.  It’s amazing that building has survived so many hurricanes.  There were displays of pictures showing how buried everything got during Hurricane Katrina, suggesting it was quite an undertaking to restore it yet again.  Still, it was an interesting bit of history to see while on the island.

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Fort Massachusetts

After we were done at the beach, we went back to the hotel for a few hours. Meg fell asleep in the car on the way back, and then fell asleep again on her bed once we got back to the hotel.  Once we finally convinced her to get up, we went to a good seafood restaurant in Gulfport and filled up on plenty of fried fish.  Pretty sure I ate enough to never eat again.

The next day was rainy, so we didn’t do all that much.  We still took some time, between showers, to hit the other portion of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, closer to the bayous.  This was your typical national park visitor center-type exhibit, complete with a video describing the history of the area, and some child-friendly activities.  The bayous were cool to see, but we didn’t observe much wildlife.  We had a good time getting Meg to help us search for alligators, though.

By Saturday, it was time to leave.  As we weren’t about to try and take US-49 again, we looked at the alternative route to I-55 by way of I-10…and as that route takes us right by New Orleans, we opted to stop in for breakfast at CafĂ© du Monde for beignets, and Central Grocery for muffulettas.  I was just in New Orleans for the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2012, but Brooke hadn’t been there since our honeymoon back in 2005 (pre-Katrina).  As expected, everything was wonderful!

The rest of the ride home was mostly uneventful, though the amount of time in the car and the constant proximity with her parents had finally worn on Meg.  This was a looooooooong 11 hr drive home…but, we survived.  🙂

It was a good trip overall!  A nice little excursion for a few days, seeing new places and having new experiences.  Though Meg likely won’t remember this particular trip, we can at least point to the seashells in her fish bowl and say “you found those down in Mississippi when you were three.”

A Three Hour Tour…

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Brooke and I went on a float trip over the last few days… Sunday to Tuesday seemed like the best time to do it, as we’d be avoiding all the crowds, and it wouldn’t be in the dead center of the week, which would just disrupt all kinds of other things. We went down to Jacks Fork River, near Eminence, MO for a 24 mi, 2-night trip.

The weather was absolutely perfect. The high was supposed to be in the upper-80s or lower-90s, but it never felt like it really got above 85 F while we were along the river. The sun was out the whole time, it never rained, there was a distinct lack of humidity, and there were no mosquitoes (although, there were plenty of other flies and gnats…not as big a deal, though). I’ve posted some pictures up on Picasa if you want to check them out.

We got started Sunday afternoon and floated for a few hours, then spent most of the day floating on Monday (around 9:00 am to 4:00 pm). On Tuesday morning, it only took us 45 min or so to get to our final destination, indicating that we’d gone 23 of the 24 miles by the end of Monday…which pretty much rocked. It got us back to St. Louis in plenty of time for Brooke to grab a shower and relax before heading off to teach her ACT Prep class.

As you’ll see in the photos, we had quite a bit of fun taking pictures with the new camera. (Note: we were quite careful with it…taking it along in a water-proof container and only taking it out on shore…never whilst in the boat) We got to toy with the shutter and aperture settings, which are things I’d never really experimented with. The ability to take as many pictures as you want on an 8 GB card makes it easy to toy around and see what you can make happen. We took, like, 50 pictures of the fire on Monday night while messing around with those settings (I’ve only posted a few of those, though).

Anyway, it was an excellent trip and we’ll probably need to do it again! Likely not this year, but who knows…

We’re back….

floating
…from 3 days of floating on the Jack’s Fork near Eminence. We had a great time and didn’t get too sunburned. More pictures will be on facebook once we finish sorting through them!

Trip down to Hot Springs

That’s a picture from I-55 in northern Arkansas. Terrible place. Seriously. Their Department of Transportation has got to be the most inept in the nation. See the clear skies?! It snowed the DAY BEFORE and there was ice all over the place. It took us over an hour to go 15-20 miles toward Memphis.

There are more pics…feel free to check those out, of course

Either way, that was on the way down to Hot Springs, AR. Brooke decided she wanted to go on a little trip, just to get away for a little bit. It’s a relatively easy drive (minus the aforementioned DOT from Arkansas), and a place neither of us had ever been to.

Anyway, it was a pretty good trip! Brooke made reservations at Hilltop Manor, a bed-and-breakfast right by the national park. The weather was pretty awesome, for the most part, so we spent Monday walking around the town, went up to the top of the mountain and went up in the observation tower, then walked along Bath House Row (and toured an old bath house maintained by the National Park Service), and otherwise chilled for the rest of the day in front of a fire place, reading and gaming (on the DS, of course :-)).

The trip back was less eventful than the one down, so that was a big plus. In any event, I’m glad to be back and catch up on all the TV shows we didn’t get to last week. And, maybe even get some science done tomorrow…

1450 miles and 30.9 mpg…w00t!

So, Brooke and I went on vacation this past week…if you wanna check out some pictures, by all means do so… In summary, we went to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for 3 nights of camping, and then checked out Memphis, TN to visit Beale Street and then the Dave Matthews Band concert for Saturday night.

A few highlights:

1). Pigeon Forge is an interesting place. Imagine Branson, MO…but 4x longer and with a pancake shop in every other building on that stretch. It’s rather ridiculous. The worst part is that nearly every one had a full parking lot at most times of the day (especially breakfast, of course). Gatlinburg wasn’t much better, but it at least had that “Alpine Village” vibe going for it…

2). The camping was pretty nice. The first night was a bit warm, but the next two were much cooler. It only rained up on Clingman’s Dome (very foggy up there…you can see in the pictures!), and then it stormed the last night we were there. So yeah, the weather was pretty reasonable for late-July!

3). Brooke didn’t get attacked by any bears. She was rather disappointed.

4). Memphis was pretty fun, for the most part. We spent the first night out on Beale Street, which is about as close to Bourbon Street as you’re gonna get north of New Orleans (i.e. no open container law, smelled terrible, open late, etc.). We saw some excellent music and had excellent food at Rum Boogie, had some good BBQ ribs at Blues City Cafe, and walked around downtown quite a bit.

5). Graceland charges $27 to visit the mansion. Per person. And they charge for parking. It goes up from there to $32 for the “platinum tour,” and something in the $60 range to see everything. We were content with just driving by… 😛

6). We saw Dave Matthews Band at Autozone Park, which is where the Memphis Redbirds (Cardinal’s farm team) play. We got to stand right in front of the stage on the field, so it was the absolute closest we’ve ever been to a concert for Dave (I’ve been to 5 now, I think?). The set list was arguably the best I’ve seen, including many old classics as well as a few new ones – they started at 8:15 and we didn’t make it out of there until 11:00 (long set!). Willie Nelson also opened, which was rather neat! The best part was when Dave and Willie sang “Gravedigger” together, which worked beautifully with Willie’s style of singing. The band also did covers of “Burning Down The House” and “Sledgehammer” (a ‘love song,’ Dave said beforehand). So, overall, the concert was pretty awesome!

7). …except for all the people that were there with us… Since we were on the field, that counted as “general admission,” which meant that we were down there with a lot of crazies. Crazies as in frat boys with their girlfriends (with 2 carat diamonds on their fingers…). Crazies as in “I’m going to spend $65 on a ticket, not pay attention to the band, and instead fling my $8 beer around in the air while I dance poorly, spilling it on my neighbor’s feet.” I mean, I’ve been in general admission sections at amphitheaters many a time where the worst thing around was the distinct smell of marijuana…but at least everyone was a). watching the show, and b). respecting the space of those around them. It was nearly unbearable…but at least the music made up for it (to an extent).

That’s about it! It was a great trip, overall!

Time to get back to work though, I guess…

A good weekender…

Brooke and I took the day off Friday to go to Kansas City for the night, then drive into Hermann for the next night. This was prompted by a deal that the Captain Wohlt B&B was running – as January is a generally slow month for the sleepy town of Hermann, MO, they ran a 50% off deal for the weekend, and as we didn’t make it out there last Summer, we decided to make the trip this time.

Before we get to that, however, we Pricelined a hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, MO for Friday night, mostly because we hadn’t really been to KC before together, and certainly not to see some of the touristy things in our own backyard. Thus, we hit a few nearby attractions…

First up was the Steamboat Arabia Museum. Now, one may think, looking at billboards on I-70, that this would be a somewhat cheesy endeavor, but it was really, really interesting. Essentially, back in the 1850s, the steamboat Arabia, traveling from St. Louis, MO to Sioux City, NE, hit a snag and sank with all her cargo – the only life lost was a mule (and yes, the mule is at the museum). Some local guys decided to look for a steamboat (as there are over 100 that went down in the Missouri River in that general time…) and see what treasure was in store for them. They selected this one because the Army CoE had reined in the river into a channel away from where the ship sank, thus leaving the steamboat in a field. These guys obtained rights to dig in the field and, in the late-1980s, found the ship and dug it up. It’s crazy the stuff they found on this boat, destined for general stores up and down the river. We’re talking leather goods, fine china, woodworking tools, wool coats, pickled goods, gin, etc. Nearly all of it was still there and in surprisingly good condition. If you look at all the stuff in there, you quickly realize that these local treasure hunters found millions of dollars worth of goods in perfect condition, essentially buried in a field.

The next stop was the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Not a whole lot to write about this one, but we feel we got a little more culture after going 😛 Essentially, it was just an art museum, yet free. Contemporary art, portraits, furniture, photography…in all, it was interesting and full of good stuff…just not much to report here!

We went to BB’s Lawnside BBQ for dinner on Friday night. After finding the place (the road was closed, like, 100 ft from the entrance, and we had to drive around for 20 min to find a way to get there…), we were treated to some excellent KC BBQ and live blues music, both of which were well-received. I don’t get out to hear live music as often as I’d like, and getting it paired with BBQ is always a plus.

The next day, we went to the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library in Independence, MO. I’ve been there before, but it’s been a good 10-15 years; this was Brooke’s first trip. While I’d learned about Truman in the past, I didn’t realize (at the time) how important the man was. Besides the obvious dropping of the Atomic Bomb and the Truman Doctrine of communist containment, I found that he was also responsible for recognizing the State of Israel, pushing forward civil rights legislation for servicemen, first trying to pass a national health care initiative, and getting us involved with NATO. He was a good Democrat 🙂 A fine way to spend a morning…

We then drove to Hermann, MO to taste wine at the Bommarito Estate, which we’d been told to go to in the past yet had never made it there. The wine was pretty good, and certainly different as it was nearly all “dry.” Apparently, the vintner doesn’t add any sugar to his wines, so while I’m used to having a vignoles that is sweet, this one wasn’t really sweet at all. We bought three bottles while we were there…and I think Brooke has discovered Port as a drink of choice 😛

Anyway, we stayed at the B&B that night in a nice suite and went to dinner at Trapper’s Grill: I had a very, very excellent Caribbean chicken breast and Brooke had pasta. We were quite satisfied!

So yeah, it was good trip with no real hiccups. Now, sadly, we’ll have to replenish our checking account, as we spent a pretty penny doing this!

Vacation Suggestions?

***EDIT***

Mom, what do you think about the Grand Canyon this summer?  We could go down on mules and leave Dad and Andy up above…Andy says he’s afraid of heights, but I think he’s really just a wuss….

Just in case anyone still reads this, I’m trying to decide where we should go for vacation this year. I’d really like to go southwest at some point, but I’d like to rent a jeep and go down into Canyonlands for a few days and I’m not sure we can afford that this summer. So, Andy’s never been to Mesa Verde so we could just go down and do that kind of stuff (plus I’ve been reading a lot of Tony Hillerman lately, so Chaco Canyon could be a fun adventure) and maybe head up north for a day or so, too. Or, we could go to the Dakotas, because I haven’t been there in awhile and Wall is always fun. Or, we could head the other direction to the east coast. Maybe to Niagra Falls, since neither of us has been there. Any other suggestions or votes? Keep in mind we’ll camp at least part of the time, and try to be as cheap as possible the rest.

Mmmmm…Missouri Backcountry…

Well, Brooke got to go backpacking for the first time this weekend. We hit the Ozark Trail’s Current River section Friday afternoon, which is located kinda between Bonne Terre, MO and Eminence, MO…but by “between,” I mean “there’s nothing but forest there, so it’s kinda far from both.”

Anyway, we got started Friday night but really only had time to pitch a tent and collect firewood. We even got to chop down a tree with our nifty new hatchet (picture coming…) in the dark, which was rather sweet… The night proved mostly uneventful, but it was still good… The real problem was the heat. I mean, it cooled off a bit, but being in the trees with little or no breeze meant that the humidity just kinda hung around. As a result, Brooke didn’t sleep all that well…

We got up the next morning and hit the trail. The hiking itself was pretty straight-forward, but we weren’t as close to water as I’d hoped. I mean, yes, the trail generally follows the Current River, but as many of you know, there are lots of bluffs along the water, which means that while we were usually “close” to it, we still couldn’t actually get to it except at a few points… We did get to eat lunch by the river, which was lovely, and get our feet wet once or twice.

But, the heat was still pretty annoying and we did 10 miles of hiking (give or take…) in a relatively short span of time… By the time we had done the hiking we had planned to do, and hiked back, we realized we were only an hour from the car… So yeah, dripping with sweat and with blisters on our feet (well, mine at least…), we headed back to the car and just decided to come home rather than stick it out another night… We got back last night and picked up the dog from Jo and Lisa’s (thanks!).

Anyway, it was a good, albeit brief and warm, trip. While the weather wasn’t what we would have preferred, we did get some good scenery and some good exercise…

Back to the “real world” now, I guess……